This post is one of the most personal I have written, and yet at the same time is not really about me. Nevertheless it discusses rape so I urge you first and foremost to take care of yourselves.
I am cis-gendered. When gender and genitals, or gender and sex, are conflated, it is not I who is hurt by it. By sharing this, my small hope is that I can help and support – not hinder or speak for or over – the transgender sisters, gender queer and gender fluid folk whose identities are too often questioned . (If I fail to get that balance right, please tell me.) There is another woman I want particularly to stand in solidarity with today too…
Although I don’t follow the writer Sarah Ditum on twitter, I saw this tweet a little while after she had sent it, and for some time now it has been on my mind – or rather, how to frame a response to it has been on my mind. Whilst I had been aware of a feminism that framed rape in such a context I had rarely seen it put so bluntly. However I wasn’t sure if I could find the language for how it troubled me, without either attacking Ditum (which would be counter productive and needless given that we had almost no previous interaction), or talking over the transgender women whose narrative is their own to frame.
Tacking rape culture – calling it out, speaking up, joining my voices with other women’s to challenge it and break it down to help work toward a society where everyone can live more safely – is something I have been doing more and more recently. There are many reasons why I have become more engaged in that conversation, not the least of them being that I was raped repeatedly by a former boyfriend during an abusive relationship. More accurately, it was less to do with the fact of being raped than it was about not being believed, and the attitudes which I (like so many other women) have faced as we struggle to process when they try and deal with what has happened to them.
I chose not to report what happened. We weren’t living together, and it was harder even than now for women raped by their partners to get justice: marital rape had only just become illegal following the 1991 R v R ruling, and the prevailing attitude within law enforcement to domestic abuse and rape not exactly encouraging. Yet whilst I knew that the chances of a conviction were remote, this was not the prevailing reason why I chose not to report.
One of the things which I am most grateful to twitter for is how it has helped me both re-engage with my feminism, and helped to confront within myself both how white and cis-normative it had been. My relationship with feminism (not unlike many women) has been complicated, and it was my Christian faith which also played a big part in helping to re-frame it. Like many women of faith, we find no contradiction at all between the call of Christ and our feminism. And like Christ, the call of standing with and for ‘the least of these’ sharpens both our praxis and narrative as feminists.
And whilst I struggle to understand why some people want to define women in conservative ways, and deny to women who they are because of being assigned male at birth, I have to be honest and say that it was not for that reason initially that Ditum’s tweet bothered me so much. Nor was it the fact that my ex-boyfriend also used numerous objects to rape me with, although memories reared their head when I read it. It was because it was so entirely at odds with what I thought even the most ardent anti-trans feminist understood: that rape is not a crime of sex, but a crime based of the abuse of power.
My ex raped me. He could have chosen not to. He could have chosen to walk away, to sod off somewhere and find a more constructive channel for his never-ending quest for control; he chose instead to manipulate me and demonstrate power over me. He could have chosen to question why he wanted those things, he could have chosen to explore within himself why he wanted my humiliation through repeated violations, rather than my comfort and happiness.
Instead he made a choice to hurt me because that was what he wanted. His penis didn’t make that decision. He did. Reducing men’s decision to rape to the random behaviour of a set of genitalia diminishes what rape is, and makes it harder for its victims to name the problem and reclaim the agency and autonomy being raped has taken from them.
But I am not the only woman who has been raped, for whom such penis-orientated attitudes have made the ability to find comfort and community so much harder, even amongst other women. In a sense, Ditum’s comment was just the visible tip of the iceberg of dangerous and bad assumptions which make it harder for women to be believed, even by other women.
Some of you reading this may be aware of a trans*gender woman, a twitter engineer called Dana McCullum who was recently convicted of raping her wife. McCullum raped and violated her wife, not because she has a penis, but because she chose to exercise power and control in an abusive manner.
But the truly appalling aspect of this is not that McCullum is transgender. It is that that focus on this aspect (which happened because feminists forgot what rape is truly about), took away the support that should have been accorded to her wife.
So now I want you to read her story, the one she has had to tell because we helped to make it harder for her. I want you to listen to her, to her story, to the struggle she has had to find agency and identity. I stand in solidarity with her.
When we think that rape is about genitals and sex, we don’t just make stopping it harder. We make it harder for the victim, for the one person we are supposed to be there for. I know that we all want rape to stop. We all want rape culture dismantled so that the women and children on the receiving end of rape and abuse to be safer than we were. We want rapes victims to have all the support they deserve so that they can heal.
But we won’t do that if we are not honest, with ourselves and with each other. If we want to ‘name the problem’ then we actually have to understand it so that we can name it correctly: it was a man who raped me, not a penis; and it was a woman who raped M, not a penis. The name of the problem is not ‘penis’.
It’s name is patriarchy.